The term ‘emoticon’ is a mixture of the words “emotion” and “icon” and refers to the graphic signs, such as the smiley face, which often accompany textual computer-mediated communication (CMC).
Emoticons began in CMC in 1982 when the sideways smiley face :-) was first proposed by an American computer scientist, as a means to signal that something was a joke in messages posted to a computer science discussion forum. Since that time thousands of similar signs have developed. They vary considerably in form and meaning and have become more graphically reduced over time, such as ☺. A growing number of signs represent objects of various kinds (such as a heart or a beer mug), although the majority mimic facial expressions.
Emoticons are used in all types of CMC these days, including chat rooms and instant messaging, as well as e-mails, bulletin board postings and blogs. They can also occasionally make their way into more traditional written contexts that are not CMC, such as advertisements and handwritten notes. As their name suggests, they have traditionally been thought of as indicators of an emotional state, in that they are assumed to show non-linguistic information that would be conveyed through facial gestures and body language in face-to-face communication. The argument goes that in CMC these are missing and emoticons are used to replace them.
However, the researchers Eli Dresner and Susan C. Herring think that this view of emoticons as emotional ‘signals’ is over simplistic. They argue that they actually have a much greater role to play in CMC than just conveying emotions: in fact, they help to form meaning. They begin by arguing that many facial emoticons do not seem to express a single emotion, or indeed any emotion at all. For example, is a face with a tongue sticking out ( ;-p ) a sign of a specific emotion? It could be interpreted in a variety of ways including teasing, flirting and sarcasm, all of which may be associated with emotional states but are not actually emotions themselves. Or consider the winking face ;-). This usually indicates that the writer is joking, but are jokes really associated with a single emotive state? People may joke when they are happy or sad. Even the smiley face itself does not always only convey happiness. It has also been found to express sarcasm, again not exactly a state of emotion. So what do emoticons express other than emotions?
Dresner and Herring argue that emoticons cannot stand alone as separate emotions isolated from a text. Instead, they are very much a part of it and play a vital role in showing the meaning behind it. This can be quite straightforward at times, such as in the following excerpt from an online conversation:
The student’s smiling face seems to express their happiness at being able to attend the conference and the professor’s frowning face expresses sadness or regret at not going. However, at times emoticons seem to be used in a less straightforward way, as in the following example posted on an online medical support forum:
This writer is clearly not happy and seems to use a smiley in the opposite way to how we would expect. It seems that here it maybe functions to mitigate what could otherwise be read as a self-pitying list of complaints and suggests that the writer is not complaining but instead just describing the situation.
Dresner and Herring suggest that all emoticons seem to convey that the utterance they are attached to is not intended to be taken completely seriously. However, they stress that this is a generalisation and that context is always required for a reader to interpret the specific intended meaning of any emoticon. They suggest that, just like the rules of conversation, these meanings have to somehow be ‘learned’ by their users and that further research will be needed to determine not only how this happens but also to ascertain the many varied and constantly changing functions of all the different emoticons.
Anybody fancy it? ;)
Dresner, Eli and Herring, Susan C. (2010) Functions of the nonverbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary Force. Communication Theory 20: 249-268.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle